Anthony Branker: Jazz Dialogics
Early Life and Musical Influences
AAJ: Let's go now to your early background and influences. You grew up in Piscataway and Plainfield, NJ. I believe that pianist Bill Evans grew up in that area.
AB: Yes, in Plainfield.
Anthony Branker's Word Play, from left: Jim Ridl, Adam Cruz, Kenny Davis, Ralph Bowen
AAJ: Did you come from a musical family?
AB: Well, at first I didn't think so, I had no idea. But in my twenties and thirties I did learn that there were a couple of Brankers in the music business. My uncle Rupert Branker was the music director and pianist with the Platters. My other uncle, Roy, was with the Copasetics, a fraternity of male musicians in Harlem organized after the death of William "Bojangles" Robinson, primarily to support dance. Billy Strayhorn was a member of that group, and my uncle Roy wrote some music with Strayhorn. Roy Branker was also in a trio called the Three Peppers. Another cousin, Nicholas Brancker, who spells his name slightly differently from mine, is from Barbados. He's a music producer and bassist who worked with Roberta Flack and also was nominated for a Grammy in the calypso category.
AAJ: So you only later learned that you come from a truly musical extended family.
AB: I didn't learn about Rupert until I was playing classical trumpet with organ at an event in Pennsylvania. Someone came up to me afterwards, and said, "Are you related to Rupert Branker? He was with the Platters." So I started doing some research, and sure enough, it was my uncle. It was very cool to find out about him in that way. I think he passed in 1961. I was born in 1958, so I didn't have actual contact with him. But it's a source of pride to be part of that lineage.
AAJ: What were your early musical influences?
AB: Well, my whole family is from Trinidad. I'm first generation American. So growing up, there was a lot of calypso, a lot of music of the islands I heard in the house. Also, a lot of popular music of that time period. On AM radio, I'm checking out the music of the Motown sound, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye. Some funk things, Parliament Funkadelic, James Brown. I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old. In elementary school, I took lessons in school and played in the band. Maybe in middle school, I had my first experience of jazz, but the moment that jazz took hold of me was when I went to my first live concert, and that was not until I was about 14 or 15 years old, around 1973-1974. It was Maynard Ferguson's Big Band, just after they released the MF HornVols. 4-5: Live at Jimmy's (Columbia, 1974), so the band was swingin' really hard. The concert was at a hotel in Somerset, NJ. I just remember sitting really close, and the spirit and the passion with which the band played, swingin' so hard, great soloists, playin' bop and hard bop. It was before the band's more commercial ventures like [the theme from 1975 film] Rocky, that came in around 1976 or '77 [on Chameleon (Columbia, 1977)]. It just took hold of me. And as a trumpet player, my mouth dropped when I heard Maynard doing what he's doing and playing in that stratosphere. And his showmanship. So after that concert, I really wanted to learn more about jazz and how to play this music. I wanted it to be part of my life.
So that's when I really started to study and work hard on the instrument. I had a chance to study with Donald "Doc" Reinhardt in Philadelphia and his pivot system approach to brass. Reinhardt was a trombonist involved in jazz and classical music and had a connection with the Curtis Institute. He looked at each brass player as unique, and would consider the specific physical features that you brought to the table. For example, if you had more of an overbite, there was a certain way he approached the exercises he created for you and how your air stream flowed. He had it broken down into types, and everything was individualized for that student. So it served me very well. I became really aware of my embouchure. My sound and range improved. My embouchure improved. I was playing lead a lot during that time period. A lot of the lead players in the industry went to Reinhardt, and it so happened the same friend who took me to hear Maynard took me to Philly, and we both studied with Doc Reinhardt for a couple of years.
This was when I really began to get into the music of some of those who really became idols: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, all around that same time period. I saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers when I was in high school, and that was another one of those incredible experiences.
AAJ: I'm surprised you didn't mention Clifford Brown.
AB: Clifford was another one whose solos I tried to transcribe, and get into his sense of line development and articulation. In fact, when I was an undergraduate here at Princeton, he was one trumpeter I was focusing on, his beautiful lush sound.
AAJ: So it was in your late teens, and set on becoming a jazz trumpet player?
AB: At that point, I don't think I yet had professional aspirations. I was thinking about teaching math. I came to Princeton as a math major. But soon I was able to convince my parents that I loved math, but that music was taking a central part in my life. Music was always a passion, but there was a pragmatic part of me and my parents didn't see music as a very secure life. But at Princeton, I saw that there were many aspects of music that interested me: playing, teaching, composing, conducting, and doing research. And that was the path I decided to take and when I started taking jazz seriously as a player. I was around 20, going into my junior year.
AAJ: Did you play with any hot groups at that time?
AB: Mostly with other students, but some were rising stars. Guitarist Stanley Jordan was an undergraduate here. We played in a fusion band on campus called Timepiece. I also had to do a senior thesis project and mine was to produce a jazz recording. It was all my original compositions, and Stanley Jordan was on that.
AAJ: Did you perform with any working groups?
AB: Not until a bit later. For a number of years, I performed with a group called The Spirit of Life Ensemble, and we were the Monday night ensemble in residence at Sweet Basil in New York. It was great. We had Mark Gross and Talib Kibwe [T.K. Blue] on alto saxophones, Clifford Adams on trombone, Michael Cochrane on piano, Belden Bullock on bass, and Bryan Carrott who is a great vibraphonist. It was a wonderful ensemble. It was a great group. We were playing a lot of original music with an Afro-centric vibe. Caribbean, Latin, African foundation, but still some stuff that was swingin.' We did a lot of tours, and played the Pori Festival in Finland a number of times. We were in Paris, in Lithuania, Estonia (where I recently returned). It was a great experience to play with that ensemble.